Inside ‘The Golden Girls’ convention, the cast, show live on

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Four people in drag dressed as "Golden Girls" characters.

From left, Ryan Oates, Ed Jones, Grant Drager and David Cerda on the opening day of Golden Con.

(Lyndon French / For The Times)

Fan conventions are usually the province of costume-friendly, sci-fi heavy programming: “Star Trek,” “Doctor Who,” “The X-Files,” anything represented at Comic-Con. But that didn’t deter the 3,500 fans, many of them in gray wigs and 1980s-inspired dresses, who turned up at Chicago’s Navy Pier last weekend to swap trivia, eat cheesecake and listen to an ungodly number of “Thank You for Being a Friend” renditions.

Welcome to Golden Con, a gentle three-day tribute to all things “Golden Girls.”

Perhaps it should be no surprise, though: “The Golden Girls” — which premiered in 1985 and ran for seven seasons, spawning a short-lived spinoff and never-ending syndication — has long since secured its place in the collective imagination, even beyond the core demographic one performer with the drag troupe Hell in a Handbag described as “gays, grays and suburban moms.” Long before “Sex and the City,” after all, choosing your “Golden Girls” alter ego ranked alongside star signs and enneagram numbers as a form of personality test: Are you a Rose (the ditz, played by Betty White), a Dorothy (the cynic, played by Bea Arthur), a Blanche (the proud slut, played by Rue McClanahan) or a Sophia (the smart aleck, played by Estelle Getty)?

A group of people waiting.

Golden Con attendees gather on opening day.

(Lyndon French / For The Times)

Red, gold and holiday-themed outfits next to director's chairs.

Outfits from “The Golden Girls.”

(Lyndon French / For The Times)

Religious candles with characters from "The Golden Girls" on them.

Candles for sale.

(Lyndon French / For The Times)

Jen R., a 19-year-old college student from Atlanta (who declined to give her last name but sees herself as a Dorothy, Sophia rising) came to the convention after reading about the show on a Disney blog and watching it during shutdown. Even though she was born long after “The Golden Girls” finished its initial run, she immediately related to the show’s unflinching take on sexism and ageism and its intersections with the LGBTQ civil rights movement of the 1980s — subjects that were not often explored by other sitcoms of the era.

“Everyone watching, we were like, we’re just like them — we live in a house together,” she explains. “Every woman my age talks about aging like it’s a dirty word. Just seeing it onscreen, it’s no big deal.”

A collection of "Golden Girls"-themed merchandise.

A fan rocks a decorative backpack, left. Merch is sold, right.

(Lyndon French / For The Times)

Seeing yourself in the show, regardless of gender or life phase, was a big theme among convention attendees. Hell in a Handbag performed multiple original “lost episodes” throughout the weekend, in which, among other not-safe-for-work storylines, Sophia accidentally smokes crack. But as artistic director David Cerda explains, what inspired them to start their shocking and shockingly pitch-perfect tributes seven years ago was the idea of chosen relationships.

“They represent themselves as a family,” Cerda, 60, says. “They were more than roommates, they were family. So it was almost like a turning point. In the queer community, you had to generate your own family. So the idea that you can choose your family, I think that’s a big part of why we can identify.”

Many fans took the opportunity to grab souvenirs in the marketplace, where you could buy character-branded fans and prayer candles, or fork out for a $200 version of Sophia’s wicker purse. (Those on a budget could take a photo next to a larger-than-life replica instead.)

Also driving home the kitsch factor were the Golden Gays, who sang classic ABBA hits riddled with “Golden Girls” in-jokes. Yes, there were two drag troupes. “Golden Girls”-inspired drag queen Sadie Pines also served as host.

Three people in drag play guitar in front of a kitchen backdrop.

Read-a-booke, from left, Fox E. Kim and Angel LeBare perform as the Donatello Triplets.

(Lyndon French / For The Times)

People seated in a convention hall.

Opening day of the convention.

(Lyndon French / For The Times)

A photo op with a "Golden Girls" quote and a giant teddy bear.

(Lyndon French / For The Times)

Though Golden Con necessarily lacked the sort of high-profile cast appearances that other conventions bank on — Betty White, the last living member of the main quartet, died in December — that didn’t dampen fans’ enthusiasm. What was once planned as a simple bar trivia night sold out VIP tickets in less than 36 hours and attracted strong attendance at smaller panels dedicated to the series’ supporting actors, like Lyn Greene, who played a young Dorothy, and Monte Markham, who played Blanche’s younger brother. Also crowded was writer Stan Zimmerman’s panel, which drew a notable number of fans introduced to “The Golden Girls” through his work on “Gilmore Girls.”

The heart of Golden Con, though, were panels dedicated to each individual Golden Girl. Through video interviews and performances, coupled with stories told by those closest to them, fans saw unexpected sides of each actress. Estelle Getty’s former assistant, Richard Weaver, revealed that he tried on Sophia’s wedding dress — only to later be gifted with the iconic piece of show memorabilia. A panel aptly titled “Be Like Betty” needed five different representatives to explore White’s love of animals, her sly sense of humor and the way that fans continue to mourn after her death.

A photo of a drag queen at a photo op, and a photo of a young woman with a "Golden Girls" backpack.

Sadie Pines, wearing red, performs for the cameras, left. Nicole B. in “Golden Girls” attire, right.

(Lyndon French / For The Times)

“She was something that we could all share,” says David Mathews, who spearheaded the campaign for her to appear on “Saturday Night Live” in 2010. “My grandparents, who have been long deceased and had nice long lives, essentially grew up with Betty, and my parents’ generation, my generation and, if I had kids, my kids’ generation would have had that same opportunity. That’s probably five generations, easy, that she’s always been a mainstay. It’s easy to be nice and smile when it’s easy … I can still fake it for 30 or 45 minutes. But to do it for [99] years, that’s not something you can act. And I think people look at that as almost like a comfort, almost like an ideal.”

That sense of idealism prevailed throughout the weekend, fostering a summer camp vibe. By the time singer Cindy Fee closed out Golden Con with her fourth rendition of “Thank You for Being a Friend” in three days, with confetti raining down on the crowd, the over-the-top celebration of our TV friends seemed absolutely fitting. In an increasingly complicated world, Golden Con — as streaming and syndicated reruns of “Golden Girls” have for decades — offered fans the cynicism-free opportunity to experience a sense of belonging over something as simple as a favorite show. And that belonging isn’t always so easy to come by, whether you’re a Dorothy or a Rose.

A black-and-white picture of a woman holding flowers.

A poster of a young Betty White.

(Lyndon French / For The Times)

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